Appeals Panel Overturns Lower Court Decision Blocking Two Bridges Developments
An architect’s rendering of the four new residential towers proposed for the Two Bridges neighborhood, which would contain more than 2,700 apartments. The tower at left is already largely complete, while the four to the right have sought permission to begin construction, under a legal doctrine used by City Hall to characterize the projects as “minor modifications” to nearby (and much smaller) existing structures.
Opponents of three massive real estate developments planned for the Lower East Side were dealt a setback on Thursday when the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court reversed a ruling from last year that said the projects were required to undergo a more rigorous form of public review before final approval. The Appellate Division, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio had legal authority to approve the plans.
At issue is a cluster of super-tall residential towers proposed for the Two Bridges neighborhood of East River waterfront in Lower Manhattan. In February, the four planned towers (spread across three development sites) appeared to be dead when State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron ruled in favor of opponents, by ordering the City Planning Commission (CPC) to start anew the process of okaying the proposed buildings, in a ruling that appeared to decide a suit brought by a coalition of Lower East Side community organizations, including the Lower East Side Organized Neighbors, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund.
This decision echoed a previous ruling (from last August), in which Judge Engoron ruled similarly on a separate action, brought by several elected officials, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council member Margaret Chin. In both cases, the Judge found that City Hall had exceeded its legal authority in approving the projects.
The coalition of three developers who hope to build the towers (with structures reaching as high as 1,000 feet, and housing more than 2,700 apartments) appealed Judge Engoron’s decision in the case brought by the elected officials, however, and were granted a hearing this June, at which two judges pursued a line of questioning that evinced deep skepticism about the trial court’s ruling. Their queries focused on the technical issue of whether a “special permit” approved by the City for Two Bridges neighborhood in 1995 (authorizing a variance in zoning codes) should automatically trigger the full legal scrutiny of the City’s “uniform land use review procedure” (ULURP) in authorizing new projects. By statute, it must—but attorneys for the developers argued that the amount of time that has passed since makes the question irrelevant, thus rendering ULURP unnecessary.
This distinction is crucial, because absent the legal requirement for ULURP, the City had already approved the proposal under a less-rigorous standard of review, limited to an environmental impact statement.
The validity of this standard (and the City’s decision to green light the four new towers) hinges upon a determination, made by the City Planning Commission (CPC) in December, 2018, that the addition of four new skyscrapers to the community situated between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges (which would more than triple the number of residences in the area) qualified as a “minor modification” to existing zoning for the neighborhood. If this claim by the CPC (which is controlled by Mayor de Blasio) is allowed to stand, it would preempt the legal authority of the City Council to review, and possibly veto, these projects. Within days of the CPC’s determination, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Margaret Chin filed a lawsuit against the de Blasio administration.
In that action, the Borough President and the Council member argued that, “such developments are required to be completed with the consultation and advice of the community, including the New York City Council, the Borough President and the Community Board.” They also charged that, “aside from the clear and incontrovertible statutory requirements mandating the application of ULURP, [the City’s] claim that this application, which includes the addition of more than 2,700 dwelling units in three skyscrapers on a single block, is simply a ‘minor modification’ is nothing short of irrational, arbitrary and capricious and is incorrect as a matter of law.”
Judge Engoron’s original decision hinged, in part, upon the issue of whether such large-scale, potentially transformative development qualified as a minor change to the fabric of the community. In this context, he focused also on gentrification in Two Bridges, because the City’s environmental review standard allows for consideration of what it calls, “indirect residential displacement,” and whether, “a proposed project may either introduce a trend or accelerate a trend of changing socioeconomic conditions that may potentially displace a vulnerable population to the extent that the socioeconomic character of the neighborhood would change.”
The City argued that because nearly 700 of the new apartments would be set aside as affordable, gentrification in the Two Bridges community would actually be slowed, relative to what would happen if the projects were not built.
Judge Engoron disagreed, ruling that the, “irreparable harm here is two-fold. First, a community will be drastically altered without having had its proper say. Second, and arguably more important, allowing this project to proceed without the City Council’s imprimatur would distort the City’s carefully crafted system of checks and balances. Under ULURP, the City Council’s mandatory role is not merely to advise, but to grant or deny final approval (with the Mayor). Without ULURP, the City’s legislature is cut out of the picture entirely.”
The Appellate Division issued its ruling on Thursday, overturning Judge Engoron’s decision, while finding that, “the buildings described in the applications did not conflict with applicable zoning requirements and that, therefore, the CPC’s approval of the applications has a rational basis and is not contrary to law.” The decision, written by Associate Justice Ellen Gesmer, continued, “specifically, we find no error in CPC’s determination that the project did not require a special permit, and was therefore not subject to ULURP.”
Judge Gesmer noted that, “in reaching this result, we are mindful of petitioners’ concerns that their constituents have had limited input on the proposed development’s potential effects on their neighborhood, including increased density, reduced open space and the construction of a large number of luxury residences in what has been a primarily working class neighborhood of low to medium rise buildings. However, existing law simply does not support the result petitioners seek.”
Several hurdles remain before the proposed projects can move forward. The Appellate Division’s ruling applies only to the legal action brought by Ms. Brewer and Ms. Chin. The second lawsuit, in which the coalition of Lower East Side community organizations are the plaintiffs (and which Judge Engoron also ruled in favor of) has not yet been adjudicated by the Appellate Division. Additionally, either legal action (or both) could seek to have the Court of Appeals (New York’s highest judicial authority) overrule the Appellate Division. Finally, in the wake of the economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic coronavirus, New York real estate values have entered a dramatic slump. Whether developers, lenders, and apartment dwellers have any appetite for thousands of new residential units in Lower Manhattan in the next few years remains far from clear.
In a separate (but related) development, an already-completed new skyscraper in Two Bridges is showing signs of acute distress. The One Manhattan Square condominium building (where 80 percent of the 815 apartments remain unsold) is now offering prospective buyers discounts of up to 20 percent from the original asking prices. This comes on the heels of a similar enticement unveiled last year, under which the developers offered to waive common charges on units within the building for up to a decade. This inducement could translate into a savings of more than a quarter of a million dollars.
To the editor:
It has been a challenging time for Battery Park City and the world. Mercifully, the neighborhood’s infection rates have been comparatively low and our team at the Authority is healthy. But few, if any, have been truly spared from the pandemic – be it the loss of a loved one, economic suffering, or both. And we’ve been reminded once again of all of the work still required as a nation to achieve equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities.
But Battery Park City is New York Tough. And we’ll not only survive but bounce back and thrive, as Battery Park City and Lower Manhattan have done many times before.
Our work is cut out for us. As outlined in the Authority’s first-ever strategic plan, stewardship of this neighborhood means seizing the present while preparing for the future. That’s why, in addition to maintaining world-class parks, our work ranges from restoring playgrounds and providing diverse family programming to pioneering resiliency designs and developing a roadmap for a carbon neutral future. Perhaps most importantly, it means addressing housing concerns, both in terms of dwindling affordability and uncertainty due to rent reset provisions that have long been a fixture of ground leases.
Any one of these endeavors alone requires significant effort; together they’re a genuine challenge. It’s why I’m glad the Authority has such a dedicated, talented, and passionate team led by thoughtful and supportive Board members, all of whom embrace their duty to serve the public.
President & CEO
Battery Park City Authority
Earlier this week, a local bank teller asked me if I were moving. She told me: “I see the line of moving trucks every morning. It seems as if everyone is leaving this place.”
Plainly, much of this is pandemic related, but Battery Park City’s problems lie deeper than that. My wife and I have lived in this neighborhood for 26 years. When we first arrived, it was like a kind of paradise. In recent years, however, we have watched as the neighborhood, under the mismanagement and neglect of BPCA President B.J. Jones, has rapidly deteriorated. Our once lovely manicured gardens are now overcome with weeds, and graffiti is turning up everywhere. The ban on construction ended two months ago, yet the Authority has yet to start work on the trash lot left over from the removal of the Rector Street bridge. During the current pandemic, the Authority has ignored basic hygiene measures that would have inhibited disease transmission, focusing instead on actions ranging from useless (all those annoying banners) to counter-productive (removing hoops so kids cannot play basketball). Instead, it is expending its energies on its demented plan to destroy Wagner Park, one of the City’s supreme public spaces. Meanwhile, the ground rent and “facilities fee” payments extracted by the Authority from local homeowners continue to skyrocket.
Admittedly, the Authority has always been a giant slush fund for the Governor to direct cushy no-show jobs and lucrative pork barrel contracts to campaign contributors. That much has not changed. But the Authority at least used to be good at its job. No longer.
It doesn’t have to be this way. These folks did not earn these positions through hereditary title; they are here solely by fiat of the Governor. With the stroke of a pen, they can be reassigned to someplace like the Thruway Authority or the NYC Water Board, where they can do less harm. As New Yorkers, we deserve better—perhaps, someday, even the ability to manage our own affairs. All tyrants eventually topple. The question is—will any of us still be here to witness it?
Longtime Battery Park City Resident
Grotto Restaurant and Pizzeria FiDi’s hidden gem for over 35 years.
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let Grotto feed you and your family tonight.
Grotto sits between
The New York Stock Exchange and Bowling Green on New Street, steps from from the Bull at Bowling Green.
Lower Manhattan Principals and Teachers Sound Alarm about Fall Semester
Multiple principals and teachers in Lower Manhattan public schools are voicing grave concerns about the plan to reopen education facilities on September 10.
They are also raising objections to the “blended learning model” that the City’s Department of Education (DOE) plans to implement this fall, with students going to school buildings one to three days per week, while learning remotely (from home) for the remainder of each week.
A coalition of 14 principals who run elementary and middle schools in the DOE’s District Two wrote to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza on August 19, calling upon them to, “delay the launch of in-person learning until we can adequately plan for a safe and instructionally sound return to school buildings.” To read more…
The Weight of Water
Discussion about Development Highlights Local Infrastructure Challenges
At what point does a water and sewer system designed after the Civil War to support a community of five-story buildings buckle under a district of 50- and 100-story buildings?
This was the question raised by Fern Cunningham at the June 17 meeting of the Quality of Life Committee of Community Board 1 (CB1). The Committee was reviewing a presentation by Humberto Galarza, a public affairs representative with the City’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Ms. Cunningham asked, “what is the impact of CB1’s increased density on our sewage treatment and access [to drinking water]?” This was a reference to the headlong pace of real estate development in Lower Manhattan in recent years.
“Every now and then we hear about water main breaks,” Ms. Cunningham continued, “and we are the oldest part of the City. To read more…
Some Downtowners knew Marijo Russell O’Grady from Liberty Community Gardens, where she tended her herbs and roses almost daily and always shared fragrant sprigs with fellow gardeners. Some knew her from Downtown Little League, where she served on the Board of Directors for many years and focused on the Challengers division for participants with special needs. Many knew her as the warm and energetic Dean for Students at Pace University, a role that she filled with gusto for more than 20 years.
Marijo Russell O’Grady passed away on August 8 after a short battle with an aggressive recurrence of breast cancer. Her husband of 29 years, Mark O’Grady, and her son, James Russell O’Grady, were at her side. She was 59.
Dr. Russell O’Grady was named as one of the “Top 100 Irish Educators” by the Irish Voice. In 2017, she received Pace University’s Jefferson Award for Public Service. Dr. O’Grady co-authored a book with Katie L. Treadwell, published in March 2019, titled “Crisis, Compassion and Resiliency in Student Affairs: Using Triage Practices to Foster Well-Being,” about the experiences of student affairs professionals who encounter crisis on college and university campuses. She served on the New York City World Trade Center Health Registry Board as the former chair of its Community Advisory Board, and until her death, she served on the World Trade Center Health Registry Scientific Review Board.
Marijo Russell O’Grady was a vital member of the Lower Manhattan community, and will be missed.
Welcome to the Velodrome
Visionary Plans for Getting Around Downtown Focus on Two Wheels and Two Feet
A pair of new studies outlines a future for Lower Manhattan that is highly cyclical. The first of these, a report from the Downtown Alliance titled, “Bicycle Infrastructure & Commuting in Lower Manhattan,” notes that more than 20 percent of people who are employed Downtown currently walk or bike to work, while nearly one-third of people who live here get to and from their places of business in the same way.
These hardy souls are among some 49,000 New York City commuters (concentrated mainly in Manhattan and Brooklyn) who get to the office and back under the power of their own legs each day — a figure that has jumped 55 percent since 2012, and is growing by roughly nine percent each year.
City Health Data Show That Slightly More Than 13 Percent of Downtown Residents Test Positive for Coronavirus
One out of every seven people in Lower Manhattan is either infected with, or has been exposed to, the pandemic coronavirus. That is the conclusion gleaned from data, made available for the first time by City public health officials earlier this week. These metrics break down overall numbers of tests (along with numbers of positive results) by zip code.
The reassuring news is that Downtown’s eight residential zip codes rank among the lowest anywhere in the five boroughs, with the rate of positive test results in each hovering between 12 and 16 percent. (For comparison, in the zip code for the Corona section of Queens, slightly more than half of everybody tested showed positive results for infection or exposure.)
According to the City’s Department of Health data, the local totals for testing, and positive rates for test results (outlined by zip code) break down as follows:
To read more…
Putting the ‘Down’ in
Downtown Real Estate
Local Apartment Rents and Sales Prices Tumbled in the Second Quarter
A trio of reports quantifies the extent to which property prices in Lower Manhattan crumbled in the three months ending June 30.
A pair of analyses from Platinum Properties, a brokerage firm headquartered in the Financial District, looks in detail at Battery Park City and the Financial District.
The company’s report about Battery Park City documents that the average sales price for a condominium in the community dropped by 24.81 percent, relative to the second quarter of 2019, to $1.16 million. This aggregate figure varies by apartment size, with the worst pain reserved for sellers of two-bedroom units, which dropped by 42.4 percent from the first quarter of this year. The number of units sold fell by more than half, to just nine apartments.
Kavanagh and Niou Aim to Protect Small Businesses by Offering Tax Incentives to Landlords
Two State legislators representing Lower Manhattan are proposing to rescue small businesses with a plan that would trade tax credits to landlords for rent breaks to commercial tenants.
Inspired by the acute financial distress that small businesses are experiencing in the wake of the pandemic coronavirus (and the economic cataclysm that it has unleashed), the “COVID-19 Small Business Recovery Lease Act,” sponsored in the State Senate by Brian Kavanagh and the Assembly by Yuh-Line Niou, aims to entice property owners to renegotiate leases and offer long-term, affordable rents to small business owners.
To read more…
Following a six-month closure due to the COVID-19, the New Museum announced that it will reopen to the public on September 15, 2020. Admission will be free through September 27 as a welcoming gesture.
Upon reopening, the Museum will resume its normal days and hours of operation, 11am – 6PM every day except Thursday where the Museum is open until 9pm. It is closed on Monday.
Admission will be through timed ticketing and visitorship will be limited to less than 25% of capacity. All visitors will be required to reserve tickets in advance online at newmuseum.org, beginning August 31, 2020.
In the Galleries:ning, the New Museum’s acclaimed exhibitions will remain on view, “Peter Saul: Crime and Punishment,” “Jordan Casteel: Within Reach,” and “Daiga Grantina: What Eats Around Itself.” The Peter Saul and Jordan Casteel exhibitions opened on February 11 and 19 respectively, just weeks before the COVID-19 closure. The exhibitions will remain on view through the end of the year.
Whitney Museum to Reopen
The Whitney will reopen on September 3 for members and a few days later for the general public.
Aspiring urban farmers can grow their knowledge at this 21,000 sq ft working urban farm! Learn all about urban agriculture and green infrastructure through workshops and family-friendly activities. The Teaching Garden features over 20 vegetable beds made from recycled plastic lumber, farm-style rows, an aquaponics system, an outdoor kitchen, a large solar oven, a high tunnel greenhouse, fruit trees, several rainwater harvesting systems, a rain garden, and more.
Tribeca Pediatrics Founder Gets CB1’s Blessing to Renovate Historic Seaport Building
Community Board 1 (CB1) is giving its approval to a proposal to alter a building within the South Street Seaport Historic District, while also noting that the developer has gone out of his way to address the concerns of community leaders.
The property is 107 South Street (between Beekman Street and Peck Slip), which dates from 1900, and has been vacant for decades. In 2019, the building was purchased (for $6 million) by Dr. Michel Cohen, who will be familiar to many Lower Manhattan residents as the physician who founded Tribeca Pediatrics, and has helped care for a generation of Downtown kids.
CB1 Opposes New Restaurant Planned for Public Land Proposed in Seaport
A rendering of the plan for a restaurant beneath the FDR Drive, in the Seaport neighborhood.
Community Board 1 (CB1) is stating its opposition (for the fourth time) to a plan that would create a new restaurant beneath the FDR Drive, in the South Street Seaport neighborhood.
The proposal would demolish an existing storage shed (located alongside South Street, between Fulton and John Streets) that contains two public bathrooms, and replace it with restaurant housing a 2290-square-foot dining area with 30 tables and 85 chairs, along with a 700-plus square foot bar area with 26 seats. The new structure would largely eclipse the view corridor that frames panoramic vistas of the East River (and the tall ship Wavertree) from John Street.
Need a safe and breezy break from your apartment? Several cruise operators have reopened in North Cove and are offering opportunities to get out on the water, including Tribeca Sailing, Ventura, and Classic Harbor Line. All cruise operators are adhering to social distancing guidelines; check individual websites for details.
632 – Fatimah, daughter of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, dies, with her cause of death being a controversial topic among the Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims.
1565 – Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sights land near St. Augustine, Florida and founds the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in the continental United States.
1609 – Henry Hudson discovers Delaware Bay.
1789 – William Herschel discovers a new moon of Saturn: Enceladus.
1830 – The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s new Tom Thumb steam locomotive races a horse-drawn car, presaging steam’s role in U.S. railroads.
1845 – The first issue of Scientific American magazine is published.
1917 – Ten Suffragettes are arrested while picketing the White House.
1955 – Black teenager Emmett Till is brutally murdered in Mississippi, galvanizing the nascent civil rights movement.
1957 – Senator Strom Thurmond begins a filibuster to prevent the Senate from voting on Civil Rights Act of 1957; he stopped speaking 24 hours and 18 minutes later, the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single Senator.
1988 – Ramstein air show disaster: Three aircraft of the Frecce Tricolori demonstration team collide and the wreckage falls into the crowd. Seventy-five are killed and 346 seriously injured.
1774 – Elizabeth Ann Seton, American nun and saint, co-founded the Sisters of Charity Federation in the Vincentian-Setonian Tradition (d. 1821)
1878 – George Whipple, American physician and pathologist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1976)
1908 – Roger Tory Peterson, American ornithologist and author (d. 1996)
1943 – Lou Piniella, American baseball player and manager
1957 – Ai Weiwei, Chinese sculptor and activist
388 – Magnus Maximus, Roman emperor (b. 335)
1903 – Frederick Law Olmsted, American journalist and architect, co-designed Central Park (b. 1822)
1985 – Ruth Gordon, American actress and screenwriter (b. 1896)
1986 – Russell Lee, American photographer and journalist (b. 1903)
1987 – John Huston, Irish actor, director, and screenwriter (b. 1906)
Edited from various sources including Wikipedia,and other media outlets